Gareth Stringer didn’t realise you could enjoy the thrill of flight quite so much without ever leaving the ground – and then he met Ali Machinchy and saw a true master at work.
I’m at Bidford Flying and Gliding Club, along with my colleague Karl Drage, quite close to Stratford-upon-Avon in the West Midlands. It’s not cold, but it is grey, damp and exceedingly murky, with showers passing through and more persistent rain forecast; a pretty miserable day for covering anything aviation-related, you might think.
Well, usually you’d be right, and if it wasn’t for the fact that some of this event has been scheduled almost entirely for GAR’s benefit, I doubt that Karl and his cameras would usually have ventured out. I might have even been struggling to find the words to be honest. Except I’m actually grinning like a Cheshire Cat and shaking my head in disbelief, while Karl is snapping away like it’s a sunny day out at a private airshow.
In some ways it is, I suppose, apart from the fact that you can literally pick up and carry most of the aircraft, and it is virtually all down to one man, for he is doing nearly all the flying – Ali Machinchy.
If you know anything about RC flying (and I didn’t) then you probably know all about Ali already, but for those of you in the dark (as I was), here’s a very brief summary:
Ali is a Brit, now largely based in the USA and working for Horizon Hobbies, and he is a world class RC performer and airshow pilot, who spends much of his time demonstrating models of all shapes and sizes in a spectacular fashion. If you don’t believe me – search for his name on Google or YouTube – for Ali is a star in his world.
And when I say spectacular, I mean spectacular, and that is why is I am grinning and Karl’s shutter is going ten to the dozen. I had seen some RC flying before this, but really nothing like this – with a large scale, jet-powered glider flying aerobatics a few feet in front of us, single-engine propeller aircraft ‘hovering’ over the airfield and even flying in ‘formation’ with Rich Goodwin’s very much 1/1 scale Pitts Special S2S – it’s incredible stuff and most importantly, a whole lot of fun. I want one!
Working full time with toys must be a lot of fun, too, so I want to know how on earth someone lands such a job, and that is the first thing I ask Ali when we finally escape the murk, drag ourselves inside and sit down for a cuppa and a chat.
“Well, this has always been my hobby but through a series of fortunate events, and by dodging ‘real work’, it has now become my job! My dad taught me to fly RC and I never really stopped; the interest remained right through my teenage years and even while I was at university studying for a marketing degree. I was teaching other people to fly and fixing cameras to helicopters for surveying and stuff like that.
“So, after university, when it was time to start getting myself a proper job, and having always made some money from the RC world, that is what I decided to do, and I opened my first shop, ‘Al’s Hobbies’, in North East London. That business expanded and became six shops, with 25 staff, and we sold all sorts of RC models and equipment.
“As it grew, that gave me more capital and more time to start flying some of the more exotic models, and that led to my first sponsorship deal and the opportunity to start demonstrating models at events. One year we flew at something like 22 shows across the world, and here I am now, after a series of lucky breaks, with the chance to be in the USA and doing it full time, for the biggest company in our trade, Horizon Hobbies.
“Essentially it is field marketing or promotional work. I will travel around the USA demonstrating models to customers or potential customers, showing off if you like, and it is all about generating business. In the USA it is an industry – it is absolutely vast – whereas here in the UK, it is still very much a hobby and people try to make some money out of it, but in the States it is colossal.”
So what sorts of things should people start out with? Presumably you wouldn’t buy a scale Extra or huge glider as your first experience of RC models?
“No, not at all, although some of the models I brought here with me today are perfect for beginners, such as the Cub, and a little bit like Formula One, the technology is developed at the top end and then filters down through to the mass market. The three-axis stabilisation system on some of the models is a great example of that, and it can actually help people learn to fly these models.”
Yes, you read that right, these models now have stabilisation systems to help the pilot in control, and even panic buttons to right the aircraft following any ham-fisted human control. It’s come a long way since I looked at these things as a youngster…..
“It is now a totally different hobby and it has evolved even in the past five years. Things like gyro stabilisation, operating the same way as full size yaw dampers would, GPS technology, weight saving and strength; no more balsa wood models these days, they look like the aircraft they are supposed to look like but can be small and still light enough to fly. They are a just a few examples and we really have come a long way.”
But in basic terms, how hard are they to fly? I guess that’s what many of us want to know – could I do it, or would I be wasting my time and money even trying?
“It’s essentially all about hand-eye co-ordination. Some people take a bit of time to get it, other people I have taught have gone solo in just a weekend. But even that has got easier, as we now have RC simulators, so you can learn the basics of RC flight on your computer, without having to get a model airborne. My son, for example, learned most of the basics on a sim with very little input from me! If you crash on a sim, it doesn’t matter, you just reset and try again, and it really does help when it then comes to flying a real model for the first time.”
That’s all well and good, but with these hi-tech foam models, gyro stabilisers and GPS technology etc, I am assuming that RC isn’t the cheapest hobby to get involved in…
“£100 gets you started. You could walk into any model shop in the UK and pick up a complete package with an aircraft, a controller and battery, ready to fly basically, and it would be ideal for a beginner and one you could easily get spare parts for if you needed them. I have seen them for as little as £80 – that should get you started.
“You also don’t have to go to dedicated flying sites these days. We have a whole genre called ‘park flying‘ now, which, as the name suggests, is based around models you can fly almost anywhere, even indoors. In the UK, during the winter, you will find fliers hiring sports halls and happily flying indoors while it is blowing a gale outside!”
“Yes you need to use some common sense but it is true to say that you don’t have to join a club and you don’t have to pay an instructor (though it really helps), it has become, in part, about plug and play – people buying a model and getting straight out and using it.
“The lighter models these day are less likely to get too damaged when they crash, and the foam is even super-glue friendly, so if they do break, often you can repair them there and then! However, if you were flying over longer grass, for example, often you can just pick them up and go again.
“That isn’t true of the heavier models, however, as they have a lot more inertia, but the days of tissue paper and loads of fiddly, breakable parts, are largely over.”
So, what about the top end of the scale and the jets and large scale models we see Ali flying – such as in the video below. They are surely at the extreme end of the market and well beyond the reach of most hobby RC pilots?
“Actually, most of them are off the shelf! We do offer a turn-key service for people who want something made specially for them, but these aren’t plug and play products. You wouldn’t take them from the shelf and be flying them in 25 minutes; there might be a couple of weeks assembly to complete, for example.
“You also start encountering legislation, and the Fox glider, for example (the one in the pictures), is fully certified by the CAA due to its size and weight, but that really does only include the top end in terms of scale. We do have jets that fly at 300mph, and they are very impressive, and we do have aircraft that will fly well out of sight, such is the range of the radios, so yes, I guess they are quite extreme, but still off the shelf in many cases.
It might seem obvious, but having surely done all there is to do in the RC world, what’s the buzz for Ali, what drives him to keep on flying?
“I get asked this a lot, and I do think the hobby is almost infinite. Just when you think you’re bored of flying something at 300mph you can go and fly something slow, or big, or tiny, or indoors. I know I am very lucky with it being my job, but the possibilities are almost unlimited.
“I fly full-size aircraft too, incidentally, but it doesn’t give me the same rush – and I am nowhere near as good at that!”
And what about when the two come together, as they did at Bidford for us on this day?
“It’s not the first time I have done it, but it was the first time I have done it with a Pitts Special and with Rich (Goodwin) – it was great fun and he’s a very talented pilot.”
Rich was dab hand too when he had a go at some RC flying later in the day – damn these people who are good at everything!
And finally, what does Ali think about the state of the hobby in the UK? Surely with plug and play coming to the fore, the market is growing and becoming more accessible?
“I have to say this slightly delicately, but the hobby does still have a slightly nerdy image over here, which is a real shame. But, it is growing, retail sales are increasing and club memberships are too. I would like to see it going a little more like the US market and moving away from the anorak reputation. It’s aviation and all aviation is cool as far as I am concerned!
“The British Model Flying Association website is a great place to start and will help you with loads of advice about finding retail outlets, where to fly and insurance, for example. That is where I would recommend anyone heads to first if they want to get involved.”
GAR would like to thank Ali Machinchy, Rich Goodwin and everyone at Bidford Flying and Gliding Club.